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The Tides of Sampela

It has been one week since we left our homestay in Sampela, the remote village suspended on dried coral reef and stilts over the ocean off the coast of the Wakatobi island chain. Like our students, this was my first time visiting this community.

It’s hard to describe Sampela succinctly. The Bajau are a sea-faring community. For centuries, they sailed the ocean full-time, docking on shore merely to trade, gather, and refuel before setting off again. Outsiders call the Bajau perpetual migrants, wanderers, nomads. They describe themselves simply: To be Bajau is to be at home at sea, connected to the water and all it holds.

Indonesia has forcibly anchored the Bajau. But their settled, stagnant village still hovers above water, not truly touching land at all. Dried coral is collected and some homes are built on these masses, once again connecting the Bajau to reefs that fuel their livelihoods. Tree trunks act as stilts, suspending other houses directly over water. A matrix of canals and boardwalks haphazardly connects these homes.

Despite being moored, life in Sampela still revolves around the sea. Many residents don’t have clocks. Instead, time is told through the tides.

High tide? Fathers row their canoes through the canals of Sampela and into the open sea in hopes of a large fishing haul. Mothers paddle to the nearby island’s market. Children belly flop from boardwalk to water, giggling as they bathe.

Low tide? Time to repair the coral, the boat motor, the spear gun, the bamboo ladder. Families rest on porches, hoping for a sea breeze to combat the salty, humid air.

Life in Sampela gives credence to the adage “staying afloat”.

There’s no waste management system, and trash gets tossed directly into the network of canals leading into the ocean. The generator hasn’t been on for months, so the community is powered solely by solar panels. It’s so simple to focus on the differences from my own home. The amenities New York has that Sampela lacks. It was, in many ways, unlike any place I’ve ever experienced. Yet at the end of the day, similarities came to the surface. The importance of family and food. The debates around what it means to practice one’s faith. The smiles that accompanied finding a perfect nap spot that had both shade and breeze. The concern over a child’s future. I began focusing more on what Sampela had and my community in New York lacked. Deep connections with neighbors and hours-long conversations sans the interruption of text messages or social media notifications. Rice powder, pounded into natural sun protection. A deep appreciation for every creature with whom the Bajau shared the ocean. A resourcefulness that repurposes items I would discard without second thought.

From my outsider perspective – as someone who will never fully understand what it means to be Bajau – Sampela is the essence of humanity, of community, of strength, of resilience, of grace, of complexity.

The biggest takeaway, though, is that it’s no hyperbole to say that some of the most marginalized groups in the world, living on the fringes of our technologically-connected and consumption-based society, are also the most at risk because of others’ unsustainable practices.

While we were in Sampela to learn about this community’s way of life, I have endless gratitude for what Sampela taught me about myself and the way I navigate the world. Witnessing life in Sampela reminds me to care. To consider the lives of those I may never come in contact with but whose livelihoods I nevertheless impact – whether I mean to or not. To learn through action and practice, not just textbooks and journal articles. To share what I’ve learned in the hopes of casting a wide net of awareness within my own social circles. To do justice to the Bajau’s stories. To honor their hospitality by emulating even an ounce of their humility and warmth.

I don’t know know if I’ll ever have the opportunity to return to Sampela with Dragons or perhaps on my own. I sincerely hope so. But no matter what, I owe a thank you to Sampela for reminding me to, quite bluntly, give a damn. Because the Bajau’s future is our future, the shifting tides to which they heed and the waves they weather are inextricably linked to all of us.